Archive for John Coltrane

Sixty Years of Kind of Blue

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 18, 2019 by telescoper

I didn’t remember until late last night that yesterday was the 60th anniversary of the release, on 17th August 1959, of the classic jazz album Kind of Blue by a band led by trumpeter Miles Davis featuring John Coltrane (ts), Cannonball Adderley (as), Bill Evans (p, replaced by Wynton Kelly on one track), Paul Chambers (b) and Jimmy Cobb on drums. I bought the album on vinyl way back in the 1970s when I was still at school and have listened to it probably thousands of times since then. It still sounds fresh and exciting sixty years after its first release. But you don’t have to listen to me, you can listen to the whole album here:

When it first appeared, Kind of Blue seemed to represent all that Miles Davis stood for from a musical point of view, with its modal and scalar themes and such passages as the fourth section of Flamenco Sketches which hints at a Spanish influence. Whether the actual performances were typical of the way this band sounded live is less clear, but there’s no question that the album has worn so well as to be now universally regarded as a timeless masterpiece.

So why is it such an important album?

I can only speak for myself, of course, but I’d say a big part of this was that the music is on the cusp of the evolution of modern jazz. It’s music from a time of transition, pointing the way forward to exciting developments while also acknowledging past traditions. You only have to look at the various directions Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Bill Evans explored after this album to see what I mean.

A few words about each of the tracks:

The opening number So What? established the practice of constructing themes based on scales instead of chords. After an introduction that keeps you guessing for a while, it turns out to be a straightforward 32-bar melody with a simple modulation serving as the bridge. At a medium tempo, the pure-toned and rather spare solo by Miles Davis provides a delicious contracts with the flurry of notes produced by Coltrane, who also plays between the beats. It might be just my imagination but the rhythm section seems to tighten up behind him, only to relax again with Cannonball Adderley’s more laid-back, bluesy approach.

The next track is All Blues, which is in a gentle 6/8 time. I discovered by accident a while ago this composition found its way onto the GCSE Music syllabus. In fact there’s a recording of the track, produced and distributed as “set work” for that purpose:

As an aside, I should mention that I never took any qualifications in music at School – although I did get music lessons, I didn’t find them at all inspiring and it took me years to develop a taste for anything other than Jazz, which I knew about mainly from home, because my father was a (part-time) Jazz drummer. There wasn’t much mention of Jazz at School from teachers, and none of my friends were into it, so it became a very private passion, although I’m glad to say it never faded.

Anyway, what little I know about music I picked up by studying on my own, and trying to figure out what was going on by listening to records. All Blues is a really interesting composition to unpick in this way, as it tells you a lot about how Jazz was evolving in the late 1950s (it was released in 1959). Musicians like Miles Davis were experimenting with ways of breaking away from the standard approach to Jazz improvisation based on chord progressions, and one of the routes that developed was modal Jazz. All Blues is particularly interesting because it teeters on the edge between the old approach and the new; it’s clearly based on the traditional 12-bar blues progression but diverges from it in several respects.

A standard blues progression in G might go like this (although there are many variations):

|G|G|G|G|
|C|C|G|G|
|D|C|G|G|

It’s based on just three chords: the tonic (in this case G): the sub-dominant IV (C) and the dominant V (D); the V-IV-I progression in the last four bars is usually called the turnaround.

The progression for All Blues is this:

|G7| G7| G7| G7|
|Gm7| Gm7| G7| G7|
|D7| E♭7 D7| F G|F G6|

While the addition of a major 7th note to the basic triad G isn’t unusual, the two G minor 7th chords are more interesting, because they involve adding a blue note (a flattened third) to the basic chord . But it’s in the last four bars that the harmonies move dramatically away from the standard turnaround. Chromatic chords are included and the usual resolution back to G is subtly changed by the addition of a 6th note (E) to the basic G chord (GBD) at the end; that trick became a bit of a trademark for Jazz of this period.

However, it’s the two F chords that represent the strongest connection with modal harmony. The scale of G major involves F-sharp, so the F is a flattened note (a flattened VIIth). In fact, all the Fs in the piece are natural rather than sharp. For this reason you could argue that this is a piece not played in the key of G major but in the corresponding Mixolydian mode (the white notes on the piano from G to G).

So it’s a blues that’s not quite a blues, but is (appropriately enough) Kind of Blue. There’s so much going on harmonically that the fact that it’s played in 6/8 rhythm (rather than the more usual 4/4 for the Blues) seems almost irrelevant.

Those are just the bare bones, but the improvisations of Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane et al breathe life into them and create a living Jazz masterpiece. Although it seems like a complicated tune, apparently what happened at the recording session was that Miles Davis talked the band through the piece, they played it once to get a feel for it, and then recorded the entire track that was released on the album in one go.

On Freddie Freeloader , Bill Evans was replaced with Wynton Kelly. I suppose that Miles Davis thought that Kelly would be more convincing on this relatively straight-ahead blues, and his crisp, direct opening solo suggests that Miles was probably right. Miles Davis’s solo that follows is superbly structured in terms of timing and dynamics. Coltrane plays more-or-less entirely in double-time and then Adderley enjoys himself hugely in a good-humoured final solo.

Blue in Green, which was mainly written by Bill Evans, is based on a ten-bar melody featuring an eloquent solo Miles on muted trumpet and some sensitive playing by Coltrane and Evans. The same mood prevails in the following track.

Flamenco Sketches involves a series of solos each improvised on a set of five scales; it’s the fourth section that hints at the Spanish influence alluded to in the title. The tempo is very slow, which contributes the air of solemnity as does the absolute perfection of the solos. In that respect it has clear parallels with some of Duke Ellington’s work. Miles Davis, who opens and closes the track on muted trumpet, and Bill Evans on piano are absolutely faultless but I particularly enjoy John Coltrane’s playing on tenor saxophone: his tone is as bleak and austere as an Arctic sunrise, and just as wonderful and he conjures up an absolutely beautiful improvised melody.

I’ll end with a comment on the album Kind of Blue, by Stephen Thomas Erlewine who wrote

Kind of Blue isn’t merely an artistic highlight for Miles Davis, it’s an album that towers above its peers, a record generally considered as the definitive jazz album, a universally acknowledged standard of excellence. Why does Kind of Blue posses such a mystique? Perhaps because this music never flaunts its genius… It’s the pinnacle of modal jazz — tonality and solos build from the overall key, not chord changes, giving the music a subtly shifting quality… It may be a stretch to say that if you don’t like Kind of Blue, you don’t like jazz — but it’s hard to imagine it as anything other than a cornerstone of any jazz collection.

People sometimes ask me why I post about music on here. The answer has two parts and they’re both simple. One is that I enjoy writing about music because it gives me the opportunity to explore my own thoughts about why I like it so much. The other reason is to share something I love very much, in the hope that other people might find as much joy from the music I love. For example, if just one person listens to Kind of Blue for the first time as a result of reading this piece, then it will definitely be worth the 40 minutes it took me to write!

Advertisements

Flamenco Sketches for International Jazz Day

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , on April 30, 2019 by telescoper

I discovered only this morning that today, April 30, is International Jazz Day 2019 so I thought I’d post a track to mark the occasion. This is from the all-time classic album Kind of Blue featuring the Miles Davis Sextet and it was recorded on April 22, 1959 – just over 60 years ago! This album appears very frequently in lists of top jazz records, but it’s so good I don’t think there’s any risk of getting bored with it no matter how often you hear it.

Flamenco Sketches involves a series of solos each improvised on a set of five scales; it’s the fourth section that hints at the Spanish influence alluded to in the title. The tempo is very slow, which contributes the air of solemnity as does the absolute perfection of the solos. In that respect it has clear parallels with some of Duke Ellington’s work. Miles Davis, who opens and closes the track on muted trumpet, and Bill Evans on piano are absolutely faultless but I particularly enjoy John Coltrane’s playing on tenor saxophone: his tone is as bleak and austere as an Arctic sunrise, and just as wonderful and he conjures up an absolutely beautiful improvised melody. Other members of the band are Cannonball Adderley (as), Paul Chambers (b) and Jimmy Cobb (d).

Enjoy! And a Happy International Jazz Day to you all!

The Blue of the Night: Giant Steps from Ondine

Posted in Jazz, Music with tags , , , , , , on October 17, 2018 by telescoper

Time for a quick lunchtime post before I settle down to an afternoon of marking coursework.

On Monday evening after finishing preparing my lectures and things for Tuesday, I decided to tune in for a while to The Blue of the Night on RTÉ Lyric FM which is presented by Bernard Clarke. This is a programme that I listen to quite often in the evenings as I enjoy its eclectic mix of music.

Anyway, the Blue of Monday Night included a recording of the movement Ondine from the piano suite Gaspard de la Nuit by Maurice Ravel. As I listened to it, I started to think of an entirely different piece, the jazz classic Giant Steps, by John Coltrane (which I’ve actually posted on this blog here). Not really expecting anything to come of it, I sent a message on Twitter to Bernard Clarke mentioning the fact that the Ravel piece reminded me of Giant Steps. A few minutes later I was astonished to hear Giant Steps playing. Bernard had not only replied to me on Twitter, but had slipped the Coltrane track into the programme. Which was nice.

That confirmed the similarity in my mind and I did some frantic Googling to see if anyone else had noticed the similarity. Of course they have. In a rather dense article about music theory (most of which I don’t understand, having never really studied this properly) I found this:

I didn’t know at first what the up and down arrows annotating the two pieces were, but they represent the harmonic progression in a very interesting way that I had never thought about it before. The assertion is that in some sense the (sub-dominant) IV and (dominant) V chords which very common in popular music are closely related. To see why, imagine you play C on a piano keyboard. If you go 7 semitones to the right you will arrive at G, which is the root note of the relevant V chord. That’s up a perfect fifth. But if instead you go 7 semitones to the left you get to F which is a fifth down but is also a perfect fourth if looked at from the point of view of C an octave below where you started. In this way `up’ arrow represents a perfect fifth up (or a perfect fourth down) while the `down’ arrow is a perfect fifth down or a perfect fourth up. This is deemed to be the basic (or `simple proper’) chord progression.

Single or double arrows to left or right represent substitutions of various kinds (e.g. a minor third), but I won’t go further into the details. The key point is that while the actual chords differ after the first few changes because of the different substitutions, the chord progression in these two piece is remarkably similar judged by the sequence of arrows. The main exception is a different substitution in bar 3 of the Coltrane excerpt. Both pieces end up achieving the same thing: they complete an entire chromatic cycle through a sequence of basic progressions and substitutions.

I don’t know whether Coltrane was directly inspired by listening to Ravel or whether they both hit on the same idea independently, but I find this totally fascinating. So much so that I’ll probably end up trying to annotate some of the chord changes I’ve worked out from other recordings and see what they look like in the notation outlined above.

 

Back On Green Dolphin Street

Posted in Biographical, Jazz with tags , , , , , on September 12, 2016 by telescoper

I was listening to this wonderful track yesterday and couldn’t resist reposting a piece I wrote I wrote about it over 7 years  ago. If I were ever to be asked on one of those programmes where you have to pick examples of your favourite music, this would probably be the first I’d write on my list.

Years ago in 1980, when the great pianist Bill Evans passed away suddenly, Humphrey Lyttelton paid tribute to him on his radio programme “The Best of Jazz” by playing a number of tracks featuring him. I didn’t really know much about Bill Evans at the time – I was only 17 then – but one track that Humph chose has been imprinted on my mind ever since, and it’s one of those pieces of music that I listen to over and over again.

The track is On Green Dolphin Street, as recorded in 1958 by the great Miles Davis sextet of the time that featured himself on trumpet, John Coltrane on tenor sax, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley on alto sax, Jimmy Cobb on drums, Paul Chambers on bass and Bill Evans on piano. This is the same band that played on the classic album Kind of Blue, one of the most popular and also most innovative jazz records of all time, which was recorded a bit after the recording of On Green Dolphin Street.  I love Kind of Blue, of course, but I think this track is even better than the many great tracks on that album (All Blues, Flamenco Sketches, Blue in Green, etc). In fact, I’d venture the opinion – despite certainty of contradiction – that this is the greatest Jazz recording ever made.

On Green Dolphin Street was suggested to Miles Davis the band’s leader by the saxophonist Cannonball Adderley. It was the theme tune from a film from the late 1940s. It’s also the title of a more recent very fine novel by Sebastian Faulks.

I think the Miles Davis version demonstrates his genius not only as a musician himself but also as a bandleader. On Green Dolphin Street definitely bears the Miles Davis hallmark, but it also manages to accommodate the very different styles of the other musicians and allows them also to impose their personality on it. This is done by having each solo introduced with a passage with the rhythm section playing a different, less propulsive, 3/4 time behind it. This allows each musician to set out their stall before the superb rhythm section kicks into a more swinging straight-ahead beat  (although it still keeps the 3/4 feel alongside the 4-4, courtesy of brilliant drumming by Jimmy Cobb) and they head off into their own territory. As the soloists hand over from one to the other there are moments of beautiful contrast and dramatic tension, especially – and this is the reason why Humph picked this one in 1980 – when Bill Evans takes over for his solo from Cannonball Adderley. He starts with hesitant single-note phrases before moving into a richly voiced two handed solo fully of lush harmonies. It’s amazing to me to hear how the mood changes completely and immediately when he starts playing, and it always sends shivers down my spine.

Not that the other soloists play badly either. After Bill Evans’s short but exquisite prelude, Miles Davis takes over on muted trumpet, more lyrical and less introspective than in Kind of Blue but still with a moody,  melancholic edge. He’s followed by John Coltrane’s passionately virtuosic solo which floods out of him in an agonized stream which contrasts with Miles’ poised simplicity. By contrast, Cannonball Adderley is jaunty and upbeat, sauntering through his solo up to that wonderful moment where he hands over to the piano. Then Miles Davis takes over again to take them to the conclusion of the piece.

I’m not into League tables for music, but this is definitely fit to put up alongside the greatest of them all…

50 Years of A Love Supreme

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , on February 17, 2015 by telescoper

A very busy day at work has just ended without time to do a blog post, so before I go home I’ll just do a quickie about the classic album A Love Supreme made by the John Coltrane quartet in late 1964 and released in February 1965. The 50th anniversary of the release of this record has been marked by an extremely interesting programme on BBC Radio 4, broadcast a few days ago but still available on the BBC iPlayer.

A Love Supreme is one of my favourite jazz albums, not only because it’s glorious music to listen to but also for its historical importance. Shortly after making this record Coltrane comprehensively changed his musical direction, abandoning many of the structures that underpinned his earlier work and adopting an approach heavily influenced by the free jazz of the likes of Ornette Coleman and, especially, Albert Ayler. Not everyone likes the music Coltrane made after he made that transition (in 1965) but having taken his earlier style to such a high peak as A Love Supreme he and the rest of the band no doubt felt they couldn’t go any further in that direction.

There are glimpses of the later freer approach in the third track, Pursuance, when the drum and saxophone interchanges between Elvin Jones and Coltrane threaten to break the regular tempo apart, and on this (the second) track Resolution, when McCoy Tyner abandons his usual single-note lines in favour of much more complex chordal improvisations. I think Coltrane’s solo on the last track, Psalm, is entirely improvised and , accompanied by Jones’ rising and falling drum rolls, it acquires a hauntingly solemn atmosphere which makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck every time I hear it. What a fantastic drummer Elvin Jones was.

But I haven’t got time to analyse the whole album – another’s words are in any case no substitute for listening to this masterpiece yourself – so I’ll just mention that Resolution is based on an 8-bar theme that’s very reminiscent of the theme Africa featured on Africa/Brass made a couple of years earlier. To me it sounds like Coltrane is just itching to cut loose on this track. His saxophone tone has a harder edge than usual for that period, giving the piece an anguished, pleading feel. Elvin Jones is also magnificent, his polyrhythmic accents spurring Coltrane to a climactic solo.

The intensity of Resolution ignites an even more dramatic onslaught on the next track, Pursuance, basically a blues taken at a very fast tempo, before the mood changes completely for the final part, Psalm. And all this builds from the opening track, Acknowledgement, which closes with the whole group chanting the words A Love Supreme in unison to a simple four-note figure stated at the opening of the piece.

Four tracks amounting to just over 30 minutes of music, but a masterpiece by any standards. If you’re thinking of starting a jazz collection, put it straight on your list! You could also listen to the whole thing via Youtube

The Giant Steps of Buddy DeFranco

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , , on January 11, 2015 by telescoper

Christmas Eve saw the passing of another great Jazz artist, the clarinettist Buddy DeFranco , at the grand old age of 91. Not surprisingly, glowing tributes to him have appeared in all the mainstream media as well as in specialist jazz sources as he was an absolutely superb musician as well as a distinctive stylist. Alongside countless other measures of his greatness and popularity, he won no less than twenty Downbeat Magazine Awards and nine Metronome Magazine Awards as the number one jazz clarinettist in the world.

It’s an interesting facet of jazz history that the clarinet, a mainstay of jazz styles from the New Orleans roots through to the Swing Era, fell into disfavour in the post-war era with the advent of bebop when it was largely eclipsed by the saxophone. Very few musicians persisted with the clarinet into the era of modern jazz, but Buddy DeFranco was one who did. That’s not to say that he disliked swing music though. In fact he began his career playing with big bands of that era, such as those led by Gene Krupa and Tommy Dorsey. One of the most famous bands of that era, the Glenn Miller Orchestra, formed in 1935 and saw its greatest popularity during the Second World War. It was disbanded in 1944 on the death of its leader, but it started again in 1956 and, although it has had a number of changes of personnel, it is still going strong. So strong that there’s a minimum two year waiting list if you want to book the Glenn Miller Orchestra for a gig! With the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two coming up this year, I’ve no doubt that there’ll be a great deal of nostalgia evoked by renditions of Moonlight Serenade..

The distinctive sound of the original Glenn Miller Orchestra largely derived from the unusual arrangement of its reed section: usually four saxophones playing in harmony, topped by a high clarinet lead. Many jazz fans found that blend a bit too honeyed compared with the likes of, e.g., the Count Basie Orchestra but there’s no question that it gave the band an immediately recognisable sound. Despite his predilection for more modern jazz idioms, especially bebop, Buddy DeFranco obviously very much liked the idea of a big band with a clarinet playing such a prominent part and, in fact, he was the leader and musical director of the revived Glenn Miller Orchestra from 1966 until 1974, and also guested with them on a number of occasions after that.

Anyway, Buddy DeFranco was one of the most technically accomplished clarinettists in all of jazz. Very few have ever been able to match his control, particularly in the upper register. But what I admired most about him was his willingness to take on material not usually associated with his instrument. Here’s a great example, of him playing the John Coltrane classic Giant Steps together with Terry Gibbs on vibraphone. When I saw the relatively low quality reproduction of the film I assumed the sound quality would be similarly poor, but some superb remastering work has been done and this sounds terrific.

Rest In Peace, Buddy DeFranco (1923-2014).

Now This is What You Call a Gig!

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , on March 5, 2014 by telescoper

No time for a proper post today, but I couldn’t resist reblogging this advertisement for what must have been an amazing concert with an amazing lineup; so amazing that Pharaoh Sanders and Albert Ayler, who were also there, didn’t even make it onto the poster!

thejazzword

Now This is What You Call a Gig!

It was 1966…Pharaoh Sanders and Albert Ayler were also there playing with Coltrane’s group

View original post